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Skies Clear, EPA Rules

The agency says soot levels in the Central Valley have fallen and no new cleanup is needed. Activists and others are skeptical.

July 07, 2006|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday that air quality in California's smoggy Central Valley has improved substantially in the last three years and proposed declaring it "in attainment" with key federal soot standards.

The declaration would mean that costly cleanup measures would not be required, beyond what has been done.

The EPA will make a formal decision after 30 days of public comment.

Local air regulators were jubilant, saying it was proof that hundreds of new air quality regulations, many of them controversial, were working.

"It's a major accomplishment for the region ... including manufacturers who invested hundreds of millions of dollars in new combustion technology ... and the general public that went along with a regulation for wood-burning fireplaces that they were not very happy with," said Seyed Sadredin, executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Air Quality Control District.

But environmentalists and public health advocates scoffed at the declaration, saying air quality officials were ignoring data from their own monitors that, as recently as November, showed unhealthful, illegal levels of soot that lingered for nearly a week.

"It's either a miracle or a lie," said Kevin Hall of the Sierra Club in the Central Valley, of the assertion that levels of coarse particulate matter have not exceeded legal limits even once for three straight years, which is required for a region to be in compliance with the Clean Air Act. "If we can't trust the agency to adequately monitor the air pollution, then we can't trust their declarations of attainment, and the bottom line for people in the valley is the level of suffering continues."

The Central Valley has struggled for years with some of the nation's worst air quality, caused by factors such as diesel-powered farming equipment, oil refineries, a construction boom and traffic on two major highways.

Coarse particulates, which lodge in the lungs, have been shown to contribute to asthma and impaired lung function.

The Central Valley region must still clean up air pollution known as fine particulate matter and ozone that have been linked to a host of other serious health problems.

The response of environmentalists to the EPA declaration was "really unfortunate," said Sadredin. "This is a major accomplishment that has come at great costs.... To try and nitpick it because of some unreliable monitors not even intended to measure for these purposes is ... really harmful to the cause," he said, adding, "it erodes confidence in our strategies if we say all the millions of dollars the community and business have put in has not produced some results."

He said a monitor showing high readings in Corcoran last November was not as accurate as more sophisticated monitors next to it that registered less pollution.

"The bottom line is the air for Central Valley residents is cleaner today," he said.

Paul Cort, an attorney with Earthjustice in Oakland who has brought numerous lawsuits to force a cleanup of Central Valley air, said litigation was responsible for the improving quality. He vowed to sue again if the EPA formally declares the region in attainment.

Cort also accused the federal agency of "trying to make an end-run" around a federal judge's ruling Wednesday that additional measures must be put in place if the region's soot pollution was not brought into attainment.

However, a spokesman for the EPA in San Francisco said the agency had informed the judge that a decision by them was imminent, and pointed out the judge had stated in the ruling that if the EPA declared the region in attainment, additional measures would not be needed.

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